Don Rogers: A plague tale hits home
Amid pandemic, I picked up this novel: “The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse.”
The story has the U.S. population diving to 4 million after a plague sweeps the world in 2021. Then global warming kicks in and brings the sea into the Central Valley. I’m near the end now, 16,000 years on, with glaciers growing again and the Sacramento River flowing through the Golden Gate and out 10 more miles before reaching the fast-dropping ocean.
The outbreak in this tale written in 2010 is no merely virulent strain of the flu, Asian, Hong Kong, Swine, Spanish. No, this vague superbug goes way beyond the Black Death, which historians believe took half the population of Europe in medieval times. Think the poxes, measles, fevers that wiped out indigenous populations all wrapped up into one, and then more.
There’s no hunkering down, lights on, cozy with Netflix, boxes of TP stored in the garage, taking terrified glimpses at the news while most of Europe begins to abate and New York City reaches peak.
Not in this tale. There’s no economy left, never mind to ruin. Humans by the generation become ever more wild in the best sense. Early on, while there’s ammunition, some groups fortress up or become bandits. But others don’t, and those collectives fare much better, linking into confederacies over the first decades.
Later, collectives and confederacies dissolve into tribes that grow closer to the land over the hundreds, then thousands of years. Technology and even literacy fade. Religions endure longer, Buddhism longest of all.
The last story in the novel is pure myth about people who become reindeer and then stars in the sky. Some future civilization outside the scope of the novel has the ability to archive stories and records this one, too. So it ends hopefully, or ominously if you view history as repeating itself.
I noticed the author must know California really well. He mentions an Old Poet on the Ridge. Hmmm. The full name in the story is Sierra Ridge, and it’s drawn in the foothills a bit farther north than I might guess, though the distance to Sacramento and Yuba City are not so far off. Ah, and the Old Poet is Buddhist, and there’s a reference to the Human Be-In long ago in Golden Gate Park.
There was something awfully familiar about this chapter, part of the fun of reading. I recognized other places, too, having explored many of the same nooks and crannies of California the author puts into the accounts that make up the larger story. Santa Barbara and Ojai, the backcountry there, a lot of back-road and no-road Southern California. Around Santa Cruz, Salinas, the Bay Area, north along the coast, all over the Sierra. Places wildland firefighters, backpackers, scientists, plant and mushroom gatherers, hunters and other wanderers might know. And through Nevada, Wyoming and on to Front Range Colorado, also familiar country.
Then sure enough, an inkling confirmed, right there in the acknowledgements, Gary Snyder listed. Knew it. But then I saw Iven Lourie had read the manuscript. I know Iven! I’ve listened to his fine work in a writing group, and he’s given feedback to mine.
This dude who wrote this novel I plucked out of the blue, Dale Pendell, could he be, like, local?
I learned he was, for a time, at North San Juan, studying Buddhism with Snyder, writing poems, and making enough organic root beer to keep his poetry journal, Kyoi-Kuksu: Journal of Backcountry Writing, going. He said he started it while living in a shanty on a ridge above Salmon Creek in Humboldt County to connect with other poets living in shanties in other lonely watersheds.
I went to school a couple of winters between fire seasons in Eureka, did the same in Santa Cruz, fought fire most of my 20s out of backcountry Santa Barbara and saw most of the state that way. Finally moved here. All these places Pendell had lived, too. Like loosely, I was following him around. No wonder so much in the novel felt familiar.
He was famous in a cult way with his books about plants with special properties, let’s say. Allen Ginsberg declared one of them, “Pharmako/Poeia,” “an epic poem on plant humors.” I didn’t care about that, more conventional in my taste for brews that make you dizzy or amped.
I thought maybe I could reach out for coffee or a beer — when the pandemic passes — and talk about this book, his prescience with the timing of the outbreak, his vision of the future. But I learned fairly quickly he had died of bone cancer in 2018. A poignant YouTube video records his memorial at the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center.
I’ll have to settle for Iven when next I see him. Between poems, perhaps, he’ll have a story or two, kind of fitting for how I stumbled across Pendell. These are the best legacies, passed through our friends.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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